Hartmann returned to a Germany that was being scorched by mile-wide shoals of four-engine bombers of Britain’s Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces. For the first time in history it was possible to completely destroy cities from the air, and while the threat to his loved ones disheartened him mightily it also infused him with a burning determination to do everything in his power to cut into the inexorable advance of his country’s enemies. Maybe his family could not fight the aerial menace, but he certainly could.
When he returned to JG-52, his comrades could see the change in him. He was no longer the happy-go-lucky, bubbly Bubi who was everybody’s precocious little brother. He was a silent, grim young warrior who could hardly wait to get into the air and destroy the enemy. Marshal Josef Stalin’s air legions were now facing their greatest one-man nemesis.
On July 5, Hartmann knocked down four Lavochkin La-5 fighters. He added four more two days later. Krupinski no longer had to tell him to close to within kissing distance before opening fire. Only when Hartmann’s targets filled his sights did he press his fire button, smothering his marks in hits and sending them down in flames.
He had fully overcome his amateur’s impetuousness and was possessed by the skill every wily veteran needs to successfully prey on his enemy. Late on the afternoon of August 3, he shot down another La-5, bringing his total to 50 aerial victories. Earlier in the war many German pilots had earned the Knight’s Cross for this achievement, but by this point the tottering Reich’s requirements had risen. Still, he would be recognized for his heroism.
At this point Hartmann was given command of the Group’s 9th Staffel (9/JG.52). He was almost constantly airborne during daylight hours, tearing gaps into the huge formations supporting the Red Army’s first major summer offensive. His whole wing was flying four sorties daily and downing Soviet machines in bunches. Still, the red star-emblazoned airplanes droned endlessly from the east. These were the biggest air battles in history, and they just kept growing with the arrival of another autumn.
Hartmann finally earned his Knight’s Cross by downing his 150th plane during a patrol on October 29. The two-week leave he received thrilled him more than his medal. Out of respect for his accomplishment, no one flew his finely tuned Me-109G while he was gone. The machine was emblazoned with a bleeding heart pierced by an arrow and the word “Uschi,” Ursula’s nickname. While in the air he used the call sign “Karaya One” (Sweetheart One), and by now the enemy knew this sobriquet as well as did his own side. The Russians even recognized his voice, and when they heard it or his call sign over the airwaves they would prudently give him a wide berth. They would not deprive him of targets for long, though. He had had another incredible adventure.
Late in August antiaircraft fire downed him over Russian lines. Belly landing in a field of sunflowers, he was quickly surrounded by Soviet infantrymen. He did such a masterful acting job of feigning serious internal injuries that he not only fooled the infantrymen, but also a Red Army doctor the soldiers delivered him to in a nearby village. Pretending to be comatose, he lay still as death as he was loaded onto a captured German truck and sent eastward, presumably to one of the notorious Soviet POW gulags.
When his guards were distracted by a formation of Stukas passing overhead, Hartmann leaped from the vehicle and pelted westward amid a barrage of small-arms fire, losing his pursuers in a field of six-foot-tall sunflowers. When he spied an enemy patrol that night, he followed it to the front and under cover of darkness made it to German lines. He was not out of danger yet.
A trigger-happy, teenaged German sentry shot at Hartmann, putting a Mauser bullet through his pants leg. The boy was so nervous because a few days earlier German-speaking Russians had ambushed his unit. There was no way he could get back to his outfit that night, so the German infantrymen he had come upon handed him a rifle. He helped them wipe out a patrol of drunken Russians that had strayed into German territory.
Hartmann’s odyssey left his nerves in shreds, but it was another month before his superiors could spare him a rest. Autumn rains finally slowed the inexorable Soviet onslaught, and he was able to go on leave. German pilots on the Russian Front in 1943 were possibly the busiest men in history.
With an eye for aesthetics, Hartmann had had his plane decorated with an unusual and distinctive black tulip petal design on its nose cone. By year’s end the Soviets had not only figured out the menace of the call sign Karaya One but could recognize his uniquely adorned aircraft. They were calling him the “Black Devil of the South” and placed a bounty of 10,000 rubles on his 21-year-old blond head. No one seemed interested in claiming the reward, however, as whenever his plane was recognized Red airmen would avoid him like a leper. He tried to trick the enemy by having his wingman fly the black-nosed Me-109, but the Russians steered so clear of it that they were also too far from Hartmann’s borrowed plane for him to attack them. In January 1944, he had the artwork removed. No longer so recognizable, he quickly shot down another 50 warplanes in January and February despite being grounded by bad weather much of that time.
JG-52 tore through its hapless enemies early in 1944. By this time the group’s pilots were so battle tested that their aircraft were essentially extensions of the nervous systems of the young men flying them. Mechanically honed to operative perfection by expert ground crews, the machines reacted instantly and perfectly to the slightest touch at their controls. The cold Russian skies were filled with the smoke trails of crashing Soviet aircraft, yet sheer weight of numbers would be a major deciding factor. The vast Red Army advanced relentlessly westward. The same was true in the air.
Frantic to rid themselves of the hated and feared Black Devil of the South and unable to instantly recognize his no longer decorated plane, Soviet pilots adopted a measure that was literally suicidal. Throughout the sectors in which JG-52 operated, Russian airmen took to deliberately colliding with Me-109s they thought might be Hartmann’s. His closest call with these Red Air Force kamikazes came late in February.
Hartmann and a wingman were patrolling over Romania, far from the front, on watch for Soviet pilots who had been strafing German columns in the area. Hartmann was almost lulled into carelessness by the serenely empty sky, but instinct made him look over his shoulder. About 600 yards to his rear and slightly higher, a lone Yak-9 was bearing down on him.
Hartmann repeatedly swerved out of the Russian’s line of fire, but the Yak pilot did not shoot. Bubi realized in shock that the man was trying to ram him. Radioing for his wingman, a Lieutenant Wester, to climb to a safe distance, Hartmann began throttling back so he could bank his plane in a tighter than usual turning radius in hopes of making the enemy overshoot him, but the Red pilot was good. He would not let Hartmann get behind him. He suddenly yanked his plane upward, turned, and charged the Me-109. Both pilots opened fire simultaneously and missed. Hartmann did a split-s, dove to treetop level, and stayed there for the moment.
As Hartmann had hoped, his opponent lost sight of him, and after circling in a futile pattern while Bubi expertly stayed directly under him, the Russian turned eastward for home. With his Me-109’s camouflage blending in with the ground under it, Hartmann slowly ascended from under his unsuspecting foe, closing to just 50 feet before opening fire. The Soviet pilot turned his Yak over, dropped from its cockpit, and yanked his ripcord, floating to earth deep in German territory. Hartmann hurried back to base, commandeered a Fiesler Storch reconnaissance plane, flew back, and personally picked up his latest victim, flying him back to JG-52’s airfield.
Stalin had decreed that any Soviet soldier who allowed himself to be captured was, by falling alive into German hands, committing high treason and would be dealt with accordingly when and if he was “liberated” by his own side. When Hartmann presented his prisoner to his Luftwaffe squadron, the young Russian seemed delighted to have survived but became furious when his captors informed him he was not to be shot. The Germans eventually realized he had no motive to escape and allowed him to wander their airfield unchaperoned for two days before shipping him to wing headquarters for interrogation.
As another spring broke over western Russia, Hartmann continued refining his dogfighting techniques. He found that by refraining from reacting to approaching enemy aircraft until the last second he could often pick up critical information on his opponent that he would miss by responding too quickly. He learned that second-rate and inexperienced airmen tended to open fire from too far away. Such pilots invariably went down in flames under his gunfire. If the approaching Russian held fire until the last moment, though, it was certain he was a battle tested, competent veteran.